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The Year of Revolution: 1848

Jan 12, 2018
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In a break from the ‘On this day in history’ series, I am taking inspiration from recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. This year has seen a wave of revolutions in North Africa and Arabia, but it was Europe that rocked with demands for freedom in 1848. While many of these revolutions failed in the short term, they marked a sea change in European politics.

The year 1848 began with the Sicilian Revolution of Independence, which began on 12th January. This was the third popular rebellion against King Ferdinand II seeking the restoration of the liberal constitution of 1812. Negotiations between the monarch and revolutionaries dragged on for eighteen months before the king’s forces finally recaptured the island.

The people of other Italian states also rose up against their rulers, notably in the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia, then part of the Hapsburg Austrian Empire. The people of Milan and Venice instituted provisional governments, both of which were eventually defeated by the Austrians. These risings, along with the timely constitutional reforms in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, laid the foundations for Italian unification.

Nationalist uprisings occurred elsewhere in the Hapsburg Empire. In March, Magyar nationalists forced Emperor Ferdinand to grant them a constitution and a government. This government ensured Magyar domination of Hungary, resulting in a further uprising of Slovaks in Upper Hungary starting in September, 1848.

The March Revolution in Germany resulted in the short-lived Frankfurt Parliament. This experiment in German unification failed because of the absence of national institutions and the lack support from the King Frederick William IV of Prussia. The final straw was when he turned down the offer of becoming Emperor of the Germans.

The Prussian king faced an uprising in his Polish possessions. In March, a Polish National Committee formed in the Grand Duchy of Poznań, taking inspiration from events in Germany. While the committee negotiated reforms with the Prussians and other Germans, the leader of the Polish militia ignored orders to disarm. This decision resulted in military confrontation with the Prussians whose victory ended any hope of Polish autonomy.

In modern day Romania, Imperial Russian faced liberal nationalist uprisings in Wallachia and Moldavia. Russian troops quickly put down the Moldavian revolt, before turning their attentions to neighbouring Wallachia. With help from the Ottoman Empire the Russians restored their joint hegemony over Danubian Principalities.

1848 saw another revolution in France, the third in less than sixty years. A financial crisis and King Louis Philippe’s increasingly conservative policies resulted in a popular uprising in February. The king abdicated and fled to Britain, leaving the way clear for the establishment of the Second Republic.

Further uprisings happened in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and Schleswig. As with those already detailed, these revolts made little difference in the immediate aftermath, but all these revolutions set the scene for political change in the rest of the nineteenth- and the early twentieth-century. It remains to be seen whether the revolutions in North Africa and Arabia will follow this model of eventual reform, or whether they will quickly establish new governments that endure.

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